Bear with me.
I know that most Christians accept some version of the idea that Jesus, the person, died, and then ‘rose from the dead’ in a supernatural, miraculous way – probably the most common definition of what Christians celebrate at Easter. I grew up in progressive Christian churches, where I, too, was taught this idea, which I found fascinating and inspiring. Many people (both Christians and others) still find it healing and inspirational; and I want to state clearly that I think that’s well and good.
What I would like to suggest, however, is that this approach may miss the main point of Easter, of resurrection, and of these narratives. Here goes.
Sometimes I like to play the game of ‘what if.’ It goes like this: what if we strip away all the elaborate theology, and we are left with Jesus the Jewish mystic, who strove to reform the Judaism of his day away from the corruption of the temple authorities who cozied up to the Roman empire, a domination system that oppressed peasants, widows, orphans, lepers, prostitutes, and others to the point of ostracization and starvation? What if Jesus sought to embody his prophetic tradition in order to spread a movement of healing, justice, shalom, and abundance?
You’re probably with me so far. Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ tradition. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly describes cycles of death and rebirth, what I would argue illustrate its foundational narrative of abundance: life always, always follows death. Slavery in Egypt leads to the birth of the people Israel. Exile eventually ends in return, restoration. The holy resurrects the valley full of dry bones into a people returned to the bosom of their land. Story after story, psalm after psalm reflects a narrative in which hope follows despair, and life follows death.
So – what if life really does follow death? What if the ancient Hebrews looked around at the abundant, holy Creation, and saw that spring always follows winter – even a really, really hard winter? What if they drew their foundational theological narrative from the Creation itself? What would that look like?
Spring does follow winter – but, and this is key: it is never the same spring. We can’t go back. Life does follow death – but it does not look the same as what came before. Ever. And what if – maybe – that’s okay? What if that’s good?
Families are part of Creation, too. Families of birth, families of choice – they flow through time, including pets and plants and waters and lands. When my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, all I wanted was for her to come back. I felt frozen in time, in this in-between space of unwillingness to accept her passing and unable to move on. I remember the first time I journeyed through Holy Week after her death. I realized I was resting in the tomb of Holy Saturday. I knew I could not have the past back; but I was not ready to face the new life – the resurrected life – waiting outside that door.
But time has a way of moving forward anyway, inexorably, and my niece was born, and we adopted a puppy, and my family moved forward into its new identity. Not divorced from the past – my mother is now an honored and beloved ancestor, a source of powerful inspiration and comfort to me. Rather, in continuity with the past, my family embodies the resurrected life.
So, what if? What if Jesus died, was violently, horrifically executed by the corrupt domination system he protested? What if his Jewish followers, family, friends claimed this event through the lens of their tradition, of cycles of death and life? What if the Jesus Movement redacted and embodied this tradition for their own time, and they unequivocally preached life, rebirth, liberation, resurrection? How much more courage, how much more inspiration, would it take to preach life in the face of actual death? What if, instead of a supernatural deity reaching in with a magic wand to resuscitate one and only one (male) human, it is something… more? Something each of us, our communities, can choose, and live into? Will we recognize this resurrected Christ?
I wanted nothing more than to have my mother back. And I know many of Jesus’ friends and family must have felt the same way. But Jesus knew what would happen if he spoke truth to power, and he did it anyway. To reduce his death to a magic trick has the potential to diminish his courage in the face of actual death. It also has the potential to leave resurrection safely in the past, where it cannot challenge us.
It takes great courage to live in the present, because it takes great courage to let go of the past. Eventually, slowly, I stepped out of my tomb; and I realized that I didn’t want to go back, not really. As much as I miss my mother – and I do, every single day – I would not trade the resurrected life for the fossilized life. Because – as scary as it is – what if resurrection sets us free?
I planted a rosebush this spring, and I heard my mother’s voice reminding me to trim off the dead blossoms. I hear her when I tell my own daughters how precious they are to me. Maybe I am the hands and feet of my mother in the world; and maybe we Jesus-lovers are the hands and feet of Jesus, too. Maybe, instead of a Divine Magician, a community honored a prophet who was willing to die for justpeace, by claiming his death as a perfect example of the liberating narrative of their faith tradition. Maybe their beautiful stories about this powerful ancestor were never intended to be taken literally – just like Ezekiel’s dry bones. What would happen, I wonder, if we, too, let Jesus go? What if we found something holy, and healing, and free? What if we found – resurrection?
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.